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Bennett: Early ballots should be processed faster

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Secretary of State Ken Bennett said Tuesday he wants to avoid a repeat of this year’s long wait for all of Arizona’s ballots to be counted.

At a news conference, Bennett said a large part of the solution lies in speeding up the process of tallying ballots cast by early voters, many of whom dropped off ballots at polling places or wound up casting provisional ballots because they were on precincts’ early voter lists.

That contributed to counties, Maricopa in particular, having more than 600,000 ballots to count after election day. Bennett said the count was on track to be completed Tuesday afternoon.

“If a significant chunk of those half a million early ballots that were dropped off or voted at the polls could have been processed at the polls, then we’d have had 70,000 or 80,000 ballots to count over the next few days,” Bennett said. “We’d have been done in a week.”

Two of Arizona’s congressional races remained undecided as the count dragged on. Democratic state lawmaker Kyrsten Sinema declared victory in the 9th Congressional District six days after the election, while U.S. Rep. Ron Barber, D-Tucson, emerged as the winner in the 2nd Congressional District nearly two weeks after election day.

While Bennett said the main goal of counting ballots must be accuracy and inclusion, he added that timeliness is important as well.

“If the close race in Arizona this year had been the presidential race, and the Electoral College was tied 265 to 265 and the whole country and world were waiting for Arizona’s 11 electoral votes,” Bennett said, “what do you think the scrutiny would be?”

Bennett said he plans to meet with county officials from all across the state to brainstorm ideas for improving the process.

Bennett said improvements could include adding county-wide voting centers that would be able to process early ballots faster than the current system of putting them in boxes to be delivered to a central counting location.

“If that signature could be checked at the voting center right then, then that ballot could go right into the machine that day and be part of the results that are released at 8 o’clock that night,” Bennett said.

Voting centers are already used in Yuma and Yavapai counties.

The 30 centers in Yavapai County, which replaced precinct voting this year, have been an overwhelming success, according to County Recorder Leslie Hoffman.

“We’ve had not one provisional ballot from someone voting in the wrong place,” she said. “There’s no wrong place to vote anymore in this county. You can vote anywhere.”

Bennett said it would be up to each county to decide on a mix of precinct polling places and voting centers.

Randall Holmes, a voting rights activist and member of the board of the Arizona Advocacy Network, said he was unconvinced that voting centers would be an ideal solution. He used the example of a last-minute voter rushing to a polling place to illustrate his point.

“The chances are they’re going to find their local polling place easier than they’re going to find some voting center that’s 10 miles away in rush-hour traffic,” Holmes said.

Bennett also clarified remarks he made over the weekend, when The Associated Press reported that he wanted to overhaul Arizona’s voting system.

“The system is not necessarily broken just because we want to make it better,” he said. “This concept of overhauling is not a scrapping and throwing everything out and starting from scratch.”

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Also Tuesday, House Minority Leader Chad Campbell, D-Phoenix, announced plans to introduce legislation calling for a bipartisan committee to study ways to reform Arizona elections based on problems reported this year and in previous years.

In a news release, Campbell cited what he called “an unprecedented number of provisional ballots and reported statewide irregularities” in this year’s election.

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Sean Peick/Cronkite News Service

Secretary of State Ken Bennett addresses a news conference Tuesday at which he said he is looking for ways to count early ballots faster in Arizona.

The late count 

  • Early Ballots: Dropped off at polling places on election day. Some ballots turned in prior to election day.
  • Regular Provisional Ballots: Cast by voters whose names didn’t show up on precinct rosters or who they were marked as casting an early ballot.
  • Conditional Provisional Ballots: Cast by those who don’t have the correct identification at the polls. Those voters had until end of the day Wednesday, Nov. 14, to get to their county’s elections office and show the necessary ID.
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